Thursday, September 17, 2009

The message of Uncle Tom's Cabin - Forgotten Classics

A superior podcast recommendation is Julie Davis's reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin at the podcast Forgotten Classics. First of all, she reads the story in a most excellent fashion, bringing it forcefully to life. In addition she helps the listener with special terms and with explanations and interpretations she picked up from her research. Last but not least, she engages in dialog with her audience and makes their reactions part of the evaluation of the book and the reading. Julie makes this into more than an audio book, this is the Uncle Tom experience.

The Uncle Tom experience is, for me at least, a recovery of the book. A recovery from my memory - I read the book as a child - and a recovery from the standard criticism that has been delivered to us. The book would be too obedient, too stereotype and eventually racist and not serving the cause of the suppressed slaves and their descendants at all. Julie attempts to refute that and allow the book a come-back as a piece of literature and a sincere pamphlet for the sake of the oppressed. By all means, the alleged soft and sweet romanticism of the book, is quite refuted. Uncle Tom's Cabin is quite a grim book, even if it is devoutly religious, moralistic and concealed in its references to violence and sex.

The accusation of racism is not so easy to set aside and Julie and I have been talking back and forth about the subject. As we progress in the book, I have found Harriet Beecher Stowe at times outright racist and then outright anti-racist. Putting all the ideological passages together, the overall picture is not so clear. Therefore, I would suggest to put that aspect aside and not take the book or the writer to be of superior political, philosophical insight. Rather, the quality of the book, we discover more and more, lies with the drama and the humanity.

In the latest episode, where Julie reads chapters 35 through 37 of Uncle Tom's Cabin, she makes a remark that can be expanded upon. She says of the character Cassy, that she represents the worst of the plight of being a slave. It did not help her she grew up as the woman of an estate; she was sold as a slave after all. And it did not help her to have good masters along the way; she ended up with Simon Legree and the hellish existence that went with that.

This is not just true for Cassy, it is true for all characters in the book, even those that end up well, or are not slaves at all. The brilliance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, I would argue, turns out to be that Stow has succeeded in building a multi-charactered drama in which being a slave or a slave-holder for that matter is corrupting in the end. No good intentions and humane treatment can help the ever present danger of deliverance to the downside of slavery, to the excesses. For those who are not slaves, it presents too big a responsibility. For those who are slaves, it proves an unjust fate necessarily intertwined with their bounds. This, possibly, explains why the book was such a tremendous success even to the extent it can be argued it helped abolition come about. Stowe showed the American society their was no good way around slavery.

Apart from that being a drama that is extremely well crafted, it can easily be taken into a wider social context of subservience. How is the slavery of Uncle Tom's Cabin fundamentally different from segregation, low-wage countries, poverty and other social circumstances that render parts of society or the wider world powerless and another part in comfortable denial they can alleviate the powerlessness by their humanity.

Picture: Title-page illustration by Hammatt Billings (wikimedia commons)

More Forgotten Classics:
Uncle Tom's Cabin - Forgotten Classics,
The hidden opinions of Harriet Beecher Stowe,
The racism of Uncle Tom's Cabin,
Uncle Tom's Cabin revisited,
Cooking with Forgotten Classics.
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